October 10, 2022
Dr. James J. Zogby ©
President Arab American Institute
Russia’s latest and expanded invasion of Ukraine is entering its
eighth month with no clear end in sight. Although it’s dangerous in the heat of battle to make predictions about outcomes, there are some indications as to what the future may hold for the combatants and the world.
What we know for certain are these hard cold facts: Tens of thousands have been killed, entire communities destroyed, millions forced to flee (many of whom will never return), and hundreds of billions in damage and losses to Ukraine’s infrastructure and the world economy. Russia, the invader and erstwhile occupier of Ukraine, has also suffered tremendous and unrecoupable losses in lives, treasure, and prestige. All of this should be enough to say that this is a war that never should have been fought and that no one will win. And it didn’t have to be.
In the months before the Russian assault, US President Joseph Biden repeatedly warned European leaders of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s intentions. In hindsight, had European allies heeded these warnings and mounted an aggressive campaign of support for Ukraine coupled with smart diplomacy, Putin might have been deterred. But US allies did not act, leaving Putin to assume that he might have an open road to neutralize what he perceived as the growing threat posed by a Ukraine increasingly wedded to and armed by the West.
In the early weeks of the invasion, there was a sense that Ukraine might be doomed. Ukrainian forces were seen as no match for the Russians; there was uncertainty that Ukraine’s TV comedian turned president could provide wartime leadership or that he had sufficient enough support from the Ukrainian people to engage in a prolonged struggle; and there was a hesitancy in Europe to commit the resources that would be needed to defend against Russian threats.
Russia initially appeared to face little difficulty in seizing areas of eastern Ukraine. It launched aerial bombardments of major Ukrainian cities, damaged the country’s infrastructure, and threatened its nuclear power plants. Millions of Ukrainians fled the country, becoming refugees seeking haven in neighboring European countries.
In the face of these developments, the US was able to mobilize Western sanctions against Russian oligarchs, financial institutions, and exports. In response, Russian diplomacy appeared to secure the backing of China, with most other nations from Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Arab World steering clear from taking sides.
That was in the beginning, when Putin appeared to be winning.
Recent events, however, point to a change in fortunes for both Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proved to be not only an effective campaigner winning substantial support for his country from the West, but also emerging as a national hero who inspired his people to fight back against Russia. The Ukrainians who remained in country have demonstrated national resolve, and the advanced weaponry, training, and financial support Ukraine has received, mainly from the US, has allowed Ukrainian forces to stop the Russian advances in some areas, while recapturing significant amounts of territory in the northeast of the country.
As the war drags on, Putin has come under pressure. At a recent summit, Putin received embarrassing cautions from the presidents of both China and India—both of whom expressed concerns about the continuing war.
With the Russian military overstretched, Putin was forced to issue a call for national mobilization, which resulted in protests and more than 250,000 young men fleeing the country. He also engineered a controversially administered referendum in Ukraine’s eastern region, using the results to announce its annexation as Russian territory. Ominously, he has threatened more aggressive bombardments, even hinting at the use of tactical nuclear weapons, as a way to regain the upper hand.
It does appear that the tide is turning, but before assuming that these developments foretell the end of the war, the end of Putin’s rule, and a clear Ukrainian victory, it’s important to consider the following.
In the first place, while it’s true that the Russian military is taking an unexpected beating and Putin is facing some domestic opposition, Russia still has considerable assets to put into play. And while there are signs of some dissent, these are offset by Russian hardliners who share Putin’s grievances with the West and desire to regain lost glory. The fighting will continue, with a warning—desperation can make a foe more, not less, dangerous.
While Europe is now largely unified in support of Ukraine, it remains to be seen how, as the cold of winter sets in, shortages of fuel will impact the European public’s attitudes—maybe not so much with regard to Ukraine, but with their own governments’ inability to meet domestic needs. And the longer the war continues, the greater the danger that economic and social pressures created by the presence of seven million Ukrainian refugees—who were welcomed as Arab and African refugees were not—can become a concern.
There is, at present, remarkable bipartisan support for Ukraine in the US, with Congress approving, this year alone, more than $66 billion in military and economic aid. Should the war continue for another year or more, it remains to be seen whether that level of commitment remains firm.
Russia’s early successes may have bolstered the Kremlin’s hope of assuming an anti-West leadership role, especially among those countries who had previously formed the Cold War’s non-aligned movement. But prospects for that outcome have faded as the war has dragged on with Russia struggling and appearing cut down to size.
Should Ukraine achieve victory, although it’s difficult to define exactly what that would look like—whether it means a collapse of the Russian military and complete liberation of Ukraine’s territory or a partial withdrawal with Russia retaining control of Crimea and the two heavily-Russian provinces in the east—other challenges will emerge. Here are just a few:
- Given the downturn in the world’s economy, especially in Western Europe, who will help foot the bill for Ukraine’s construction?
- As the West, and the rest of the world, scrambled to find replacements to offset the loss of Russian gas, they took their eyes off the very real imminent challenges posed by climate change. How quickly can we refocus on that real threat?
- If Russia is defeated, will a humiliated and ruined Russia be less of a danger in the future than the current regime? And as that country’s capacity has been diminished by the over-extended use of its military, what will happen in Syria?
- With Europe‘s renewed dependence on the US, what about China? At present China is sitting pretty, expanding its influence in the Pacific, the Americas, Asia, and the Arab World.
The bottom line is that this was a war that never should have been and no matter how it ends, if indeed it does end, its impact will be as unsettling for the world and policymakers as the debacle of Iraq was a decade ago.